And then there were two.
Saturday night’s games were a couple of classic Final Four battles. In the first matchup, the Gonzaga Bulldogs had a comfortable nine point halftime lead, but gave the lead up after the Gamecocks got hot in the second half. However, Gonzaga’s big men dominated the game and were able to do enough near the end to hold on to a 77-73 victory over a good South Carolina team. In the nightcap, we were treated to one of the best games in tournament history as the North Carolina Tar Heels went into the half with a 39-36 lead but Oregon put together a great second half only to fall just short when the Ducks couldn’t manage to grab a rebound despite four straight missed free throws from UNC. The Tar Heels would hold on by the slightest of margins with a 77-76 win.
Monday night we will see North Carolina matchup with Gonzaga in what should be just as good as the previous games. North Carolina will be looking to avenge last year’s loss to Villanova in the National Championship game, while Gonzaga looks to win the title in their first ever appearance. This definitely isn’t the game we thought we’d be watching coming into the tournament. It doesn’t have the flash of a Duke/UNC or a Arizona/Kentucky or any other number of games you could come up with, but this game is one that could end up being an instant classic.
There aren’t two more deserving teams coming into this game. Both teams are number one seeds and have had a tough road through the tournament to make it here. North Carolina had to go through Arkansas, Butler, Kentucky, and Oregon while Gonzaga went through Northwestern, West Virginia, Xavier, and South Carolina on their way to their first National Championship appearance. Gonzaga played great basketball all year, only acquiring one loss all season, while North Carolina won the regular season ACC title with great play throughout their season.
The Tar Heels are sitting as a 1.5 point favorite leading up to the biggest game of the year. North Carolina leads the nation in rebounding, but with Kennedy Meeks being matched up with Johnathan Williams, Zach Collins, and the huge Przemek Karnowski, I’m not so sure we will see the huge rebounding advantage that we are used to seeing for North Carolina. While UNC has done great on the boards all year and had Kennedy Meeks doing great during the tournament, I don’t see how they can match up with the the great big man play of Gonzaga. North Carolina is without a doubt the more talented team. Gonzaga is the more balanced team though and they can beat UNC any number of ways. That’s something that the Tar Heels haven’t had to deal with this year and it’ll be interesting to see how they handle this phenomenal Gonzaga Bulldogs team. Nigel Williams-Goss can attack the Tar Heels with his shooting or his shot making as he leads the Bulldogs in scoring and in assists. On the other side of things, Justin Jackson can dominate scoring for North Carolina while Joel Berry II can create shots for his teammates.
Prediction: While North Carolina is a slight favorite, it is a virtual toss up. Collins and Karnowski will cancel out the Tar Heel’s post ability and should help Gonzaga get a rebounding edge over the team that has been the top rebounding team in the country all season. North Carolina won’t be able to handle Gonzaga multifaceted attack and the Bulldogs will win their first National Championship in their first trip to the final game of the season. Since 77 seemed to be the magic number Saturday night, I’ll take Gonzaga 77-73 over UNC.